A couple of weeks ago, I shared my view that a future United Methodism, whatever form(s) it takes, will still need clear doctrine, strong teaching, and effective measures of accountability. Let me try to extend that thought by suggesting that, with regard to clarifying what we believe and teach, we United Methodists need something like a magisterium.
By using this term, “magisterium,” I allude to the Roman Catholic Church’s body tasked with this teaching authority. I do not mean that we simply borrow the structure, but we need something like it. Maybe our standing committee on faith and order can develop into something comparable. It remains to be seen.
Perhaps, some may think, I’m just being sensationalistic, seeing a problem where there isn’t one. Consider this example. For a writing project I’ve undertaken, I just finished a book by Professor Linda Mercadante of Methodist Theological School in Ohio (METHESCO). She is an expert on the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) and this book shows that expertise. She brings to light some of the common beliefs and sensibilities that she surfaced during interviews. For instance, the SBNR generally believe in an impersonal energy or life force rather than a personal, interactive God. They are monists (e.g. all reality is one, no God distinct from creation). They privilege the individual self as the “locus of authority” rather than a community. Even though they in principle value community, they are suspicious of groupthink and of being “pinned down” to any one tradition. They also exhibit a utilitarian sensibility about ethics, with happiness and “what is beneficial” as the supreme good. There is much more, but hopefully this little bit shows that, on examination, SBNR looks more like a “religion” than practitioners probably want to admit.
One of the other noticeable features of Mercadante’s book is how often her interview subjects grew up with no stable religious background or in mainline Protestant congregations that tended to avoid the “exclusivity” associated with doctrinal particularity. Here we get to the rub. I winced at the number of times the book mentions a SBNR person talking with a United Methodist pastor who seemed to affirm the SBNR path:
Jack Campbell was another especially articulate interviewee. As a child he had been a very active and conservative Catholic. But now he was trying to live “hybridly,” considering himself “a decent Buddhist” but also involved in a United Methodist Church. When he told the pastor about his dual allegiance, the pastor told him it did not matter, saying, “It’s a broad tent, and you decide. I don’t decide.” (p. 105)
What, exactly, “does not matter?” In what sense, does a pastor “not decide” the doctrinal leanings of a congregant? Of course, no one can make a person believe a belief, but should a pastor abdicate the authority of the teaching role by this allegedly democratic reply? I am aware that people explore affinities between Christian and Buddhist practices, but the implication that “all faiths teach basically the same thing” (i.e. the “broad tent”) – a point Professor Mercadante criticizes – is one a United Methodist pastor should not encourage.
This example raises another question. Does a United Methodist clergy have the freedom to adopt this approach to pastoral ministry? To teach in her or his parish or place of ministry doctrines that she or he thinks are true and good, even if they go contrary to United Methodist teachings? (The Book of Discipline says no, but my purpose at this point is not to get into matters of accountability.) I’m curious how this pastor got the idea that it does not matter that a member is both a practicing Buddhist and a United Methodist Christian and, further, that both systems fit within a (single) “big tent.”
And more to the point, should the denomination as a whole, represented by a qualified group tasked with clarifying and upholding United Methodist doctrine, have a stake in this pastor’s response? I think the denomination does have a stake in what an individual United Methodist clergy teaches. And I think we need a qualified body to help us clarify and promulgate United Methodist teaching, with the authority to say, “X is (or is not) what our church teaches. To be a member in good standing, one must accept and live by this teaching.” We need more than mere assent to statements, of course, but, for starters, we need to (re)gain some clarity about what we believe and teach.
We have resources. We have the ecumenical creeds. We have the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. We have the General Rules. We have Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament. And we have the Social Principles and, more distantly, the Book of Resolutions. We have many resources to hand. What we don’t have is clarity with integrity. We need help. We need to extend beyond the Articles of Religion, etc. to get at other topics. What are beliefs and practices that inhere in, that logically follow, from our doctrinal standards? Not only what they are, but also how to rank them, so that we have some guidance on the relative importance of any given teaching, somewhat along the lines of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.
This undertaking will take time. And patience. And the fruit of the Spirit evident in those tasked with the job. And Christian charity from the rest of us.
I wonder how the past forty years might have gone differently, had we had such a body in place. I’m not talking about study commissions or committees. We’ve had plenty of them. I’m talking about something much more stable and long term, with people qualified in character and content. Given the kind of polity we currently have, we won’t be a truly mature, mission-focused church until we also have something like a magisterium.